New This Week
1941 is remembered as the year in which How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane for the Oscar, a travesty in many people’s eyes but not mine. Both were great films, Valley the better of the two in my humble opinion.
The front-runner in terms of nominations was Sergeant York which received 11 nominations, followed by Valley’s 10, 9 each for Kane and The Little Foxes, 7 for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 6 for Hold Back the Dawn, 4 for Blossoms in the Dust, 3 each for The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion and a lone Best Picture bid for One Foot in Heaven. All but Hold Back the Dawn and One Foot in Heaven are available on DVD in the U.S.
The popularity of Sergeant York is understandable as the title character was the most decorated soldier of World War I, a conscientious objector who was slow to fight. It was an inspiring story told at the start of America’s entry into World War II with Gary Cooper starring in one of his most iconic performances and the one that would bring him his first Oscar. Prolific director Howard Hawks won his only Best Director nod for the film, though in retrospect it wasn’t even his best film of 1941 – that would be Ball of Fire with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in a sophisticated spoof of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for which Stanwyck won a Best Actress nomination. Cooper and Stanwyck were also brilliantly teamed in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe this year and Stanwyck even more successfully opposite Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve.
Taken from the first half of Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley was another John Ford masterpiece, winning his second Best Director Oscar in a row, his third career win, as well as his third New York Film Critics Award in a row, his fourth overall. Timeless in its appeal, the story of a Welsh coal mining family that loses many of its members to the mines, is told from the perspective of the youngest son, brilliantly played by Roddy McDowall with Donald Crisp in a great Oscar winning portrayal of his father, Sara Allgood in an equally great Oscar nominated portrayal of his mother with top billed Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara in what was actually a secondary story of the town minister and the only girl in a family of boys. The film won five of the ten Oscars it was nominated for.
The only Oscar that Citizen Kane won was for its screenplay, co-written by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, though ever since they started compiling lists of the Greatest Films of All Time in the 1950s it has ranked at or near the top. There are several reasons for that, chiefly however they revolve around Gregg Toland’s innovative cinematography and the brazenness of the story itself, a thinly veiled study of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who tried to suppress it.
Welles is brilliant, of course, as the central character who dies in the opening scene, his life story then told by various people in flashback. Welles’ stock company, including Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins Ruth Warrick and Agnes Moorehead is in top form as is newcomer Dorothy Comingore whose character is patterned after Hearst’s mistress, screen legend Marion Davies.
A legendary Broadway smash hit starring Tallulah Bankhead, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes was brought to the screen by producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler with no expense spared. The only thing missing was Bankhead, but she isn’t missed because Bette Davis plays the willful cold faded beauty to perfection, with marvelous support from Herbert Marshall as her weak husband, Patricia Collinge as her sad, alcoholic sister-in-law and Teresa Wright as her slow to open her eyes daughter. Davis, Collinge and Wright were all nominated for their unforgettable performances.
Not as well known today as its 1978 remake, Heaven Can Wait, Alexander Hall’s 1941 version called Here Comes Mr. Jordan is actually the better film thanks to a sparkling cast headed by Oscar nominated Robert Montgomery as the prizefighter who dies before his time and is brought back in the body of a factory owner. James Gleason was also nominated for his wonderful performance as Montgomery’s slow witted trainer. Claude Rains in the title role as the representative from Heaven, Evelyn Keyes and Rita Johnson co-star.
An interesting early look at Mexico-U.S. border problems, Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett paints an interesting picture of a European émigré, played by Charles Boyer, who marries plain Olivia de Havilland (her first leading role nomination) in order to gain entry into the U.S. Paulette Goddard co-stars.
Greer Garson won her second Oscar nomination for what is still one of her best remembered and best loved films. Blossoms in the Dust is based on the true story of Edna Gladney who ran a home for foundlings and successfully fought the Texas legislature to have the stigma of illegitimacy removed from birth certificates. Walter Pidgeon, Marsha Hunt and Felix Bressart co-star. This was the first of eight films in which Garson and Pidgeon were successfully co-starred.
John Huston made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon, the third and most successful film version of Dashiell’s Hammett’s classic mystery. Whereas the emphasis was on the mystery in the first two version, the emphasis here was on character development and what characters they were as played by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaunnessey, Sydney Greenstreet as the Fat Man, Kasper Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer the gunsel and Lee Patrick as Effie the secretary. Walter Huston has a cameo.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s least regarded films thanks to a tacked on happy ending, Suspicion nevertheless boasts nail-biting suspense and great performances from Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine and Nigel Bruce. Fontaine won an Oscar for a performance highly reminiscent of the one she gave in the prior year’s Rebecca.
Fredric March has one of his best roles as the Methodist minister in Irving Rapper’s One Foot in Heaven as did Martha Scott as his wife. The supporting cast featured some of Hollywood’s best actors including Frankie Thomas, Gene Lockhart, Beulah Bondi, Harry Davenport and Laura Hope Crews in her last credited role.
Other films of note that were outside of Oscar’s Best Picture sights this year include the aforementioned Ball of Fire; Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve as well as William Dieterle’s All That Money Can Buy better known as The Devil and Daniel Webster with Oscar nominated Walter Huston as the Devil and Edward Arnold as Webster; George Stevens’ Penny Serenade with Cary Grant in his first Oscar nominated role (though he is better in Suspicion and non-nominated Irene Dunne is better here); Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra which made Bogie a star at long last when George Raft turned down the starring role; Gabriel Pascal’s film of George Bernard Shaw’s sly Major Barbara with Wendy Hiller, Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Sybil Thorndike and Deborah Kerr; Alexander Korda’s majestic That Hamilton Woman with Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton, Laurence Olivier as Lord Nelson and Gladys Cooper as Lady Nelson; George Waggner’s horror classic, The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya and two from Disney, Bambi and Fantasia, which had the oddest release schedule of any Disney film – 1940 in New York, 1941 in Los Angeles and 1942 in the rest of the country. The Disney films are on moratorium but can still be found on DVD. The others are more readily available though beware of public domain copies of Meet John Doe and Penny Serenade.
New DVD releases include Shutter Islandon Blu-ray and DVD and the Blu-ray debut of Happy Together.